May 26, 2005

"Everything Bad Is Good For You."

There's this theory going around that pop culture things like TV and video games improve the mind because they've become quite complex:
X (fill in the name of a video game, reality television show or intricately plotted series like "24") may appear to be (pick one: mindless, stupid or violent). But X actually inculcates important survival skills. X shows how to test ideas, figure out which ones work and grasp the full sequence of steps that must be taken to achieve a certain goal. X makes you mentally alert, even if you appear to be slack-jawed and glassy-eyed. X makes you smarter.
Janet Maslin injects some skepticism. Reading her her review of Steven Johnson's "Everything Bad Is Good For You," I got the feeling that Johnson is someone who's thrown tons of time into playing video games, much of that time plagued by criticism echoing in his head -- you're wasting your life -- and plenty more of that time coming up with good-boy answers to that voice. I guess there was only so far he could go with claiming to be improving "eye-hand coordination," and he came up with his ideas about how much his mind was developing through his encounters with the challenges of the game. And that wasn't even counting the mental workout he was getting thinking up the big explanation, talking to that mother in his head.

Or writing it all up into a book. We're proud of you. Thought you'd amount to nothing. But now we're proud!

But the rest of you game-players. Don't let Johnson soothe you too much. You really might be wasting time.


Bruce Hayden said...

I had a somewhat friend in high school and though college who swore by video games for eye-hand coordination. Maybe it was all hokey.

But... He was the fasted slalom racer as in high school in Colorado back then, and went on to have a skiing scholarship to CU, and then went pro at 20.

He had blindingly fast reflexes, which is why he was so good at slalom. And he would hone those reflexes however he could.

But the reality, of course, is that eye hand coordination is not that important for most of us. As a patent attorney, it is quite a ways down on the list (thankfully). Behind, for example, the ability to sit still for long periods of time - wait, maybe you could hone that with video games.

Dave said...

The Minnesota Twins pitcher Johan Santana, arguably one of the best pitchers this year, reportedly trains by playing video games.

Why, also, if video games do not have any benefits, do pilots train in simulators that are modeled on a flight-simulation game by Microsoft?

I agree that, while an attractive anti-authoritarian idea, everything that is bad for you is not good for you, I'm not convinced that video games are necessarily bad. They are bad in limited ways: they don't develop social skills, they don't develop intellectual skills (distinct from cognitive skills, for what better demonstration of cognition is pitching a baseball accurately at 90+ mph?)

price said...

Some of the finest athletes I've ever known spend most of their free time playing video games. I myself prefer to just watch people play video games, which should give you an idea of how untalented and dumb I am.

As for reality shows, I agree that the better ones like Survivor and American Idol are far more nuanced and intellectually engaging than things like Law & Order or Yes, Dear. Saying things like this out loud isn't very cool I suppose.

When did it become legitimate to judge a book's arguments solely on the strength of a negative review someone else has written?

JB said...

I don't know too much about video games being that valuable as a "training device", after all the most important part, is that they're fun, and fun, can not be overlooked as a very good thing.

That being said, whether or not everything bad is good for you being true, it does seem that many of the "truths" we are told at one point change back and forth.

Soy, being the greatest of all food products is actually not all that great for you.

Frying foods, which is deadly and always kills at age 36, is actually more of a neutral cooking method. (After all Wisconsinites still enjoy their fried custard right? and they're doing fine).

Going out in the sun for about 30 minutes a day, while destroying your cells and giving you Melanoma for sure!... helps reduce your risk of Cancer.

Having a BMI in the 25-29 range actually has the lowest mortality rate.

Yada, yada, yada.

I agree the Hand-Eye coordination is not incredibly useful, but hanging out with friends, developing interpersonal relationships, and then blowing them up with a rocket launcher (Halo) just is fun, which is truly a good thing.

Dave said...

My comments above were not phrased well. I've put up a blog post in response to Ann's (and Maslin's) thoughts, here.

Townleybomb said...

Based on my limited experience of post-Atari gaming, I'm not sure how exclusively video games rely on hand-eye coordination. Most of the ones that I've played (primarily the notorious Grand Theft Auto series) involve quite a bit of thought-- most of the challenges in the games come down to problem-solving rather than brute force or dexterity. We're certainly not talking about the NYT crossword here, but they're certainly far more demanding than even a well-done action movie. In fact, part of the reason that I've got a barely-touched PS2 downstairs is the fact that most of the games for it are more intellectually involving than I'd like-- if I want to expend that much energy, I'll just read a good book....

Ann Althouse said...

Price writes "When did it become legitimate to judge a book's arguments solely on the strength of a negative review someone else has written?"

Well, I did also read that other article everyone linked to.

But I'd say this is a book with one main idea, which connects to an ordinary experience -- consuming pop culture -- that we're all familiar with. I think we can react to that idea, which is a contribution to a conversation that we're all already engaged in. I don't feel obliged to read this book at all. And it is a book that's opinionated about what's a waste of time and what isn't. I have my own ideas on the subject and have decided reading this whole book would waste my time. Do I have to waste my time to find out if I'm right?

JB: Speaking of soy, I'm going to do a post about soy. Thanks for reminding me. And your phrase "hanging out with friends, developing interpersonal relationships," reminds me that the most complex activity really is relating to other human beings and learning how to understand how they think and feel and how you affect them. A video game is nothing compared to that. And you never get to see the score. You never even get to find out what people really think. You may never know how well you've done. Your own happiness? You never even really know how happy you are. A video game is a refuge of simplicity by comparison -- even though the upside is so much more limited.

JB said...

reminds me that the most complex activity really is relating to other human beings and learning how to understand how they think and feel and how you affect them. A video game is nothing compared to that. And you never get to see the score. You never even get to find out what people really think. You may never know how well you've done. Your own happiness? You never even really know how happy you are. A video game is a refuge of simplicity by comparison -- even though the upside is so much more limited.

I certainly agree there, I tend to think, but could easily be wrong, that video games are a comfortable means by which men develop friendships. This may be a little too corny, but hey.

One of the reasons I think video games have gotten a hard time initially, is because video games distracted sons from their fathers and mothers viewed them as somewhat unwholesome (distract from useful things like studying etc.)

Fathers like spending time with their sons, very much so, but they like spending this time with them, while also being "better" than their sons. This is why dad teaches you how to play catch, or basketball, or football, or works on the car together, or build a cabinet, whatever, but the Father is the "wiser." For this past generation the roles are reversed when it comes to video games, so Fathers didn't and don't spend as much time playing video games with their sons, consistently losing at Halo gets old quick when it's a 9-year old beating you. (Not that I know about that). So, there's a little retreat on both sides. I think that will shift 10 more years down the road, I routinely beat people 10 years my elder at video games (I'm 24) even though I don't own any game platforms. That's just cause I pick it up quick. As you get closer in age though that really diminishes, and it's always pretty even, which makes it great fun.

I think if I should be so fortunate to have some sons (and daughters would be welcome too), I'd love to play games with them. And some catch too. That will happen more as people of my age begin to have kids of their own.

Lastly, and it may sound weird to say it, but I will, male interpersonal relationships are always odd...just because I don't think men generally get around to talk or something, instead, they do things together, and having the Xbox there to play around is one of them, or golfing or playing BBall, they all make it much more enjoyable, and helps develop those relationships. (Maybe it shouldn't be that way, but it is.)

The way games have developed can be quite interrelational, I play a couple games but I usually only play them nowadays with my wife or if I'm over at a friends. The big thing now of course, is networking x-boxes and playing against 3-7 others.

Please forgive me for the stereotypes I've used, but I fall into them myself.

Chris said...

Honestly, it depends on the video game. Some games you can play almost automatically, but some are very immersive and require a huge investment of attention.

Coincidentally, I just wrote a blog post about Doom 3 that captures some of this. That game will suck you in and totally mess with you; really get your heart pumping (even Lileks has been blogging about it). It provides engagement and mental stimulation that has nothing to do with hand-eye coordination.

And its not just "twitch reaction" stimulation either. One of my favorite games is the old Deus Ex, which mixed first-person-shooter action with a philosophical look at how changing technology will impact humanity in the future. At one point you end up getting into an argument with an AI program about whether or not data-mining artificial intelligence programs (functionally omniscient) would replace God in the future. Not to mention it had a great conspiracy plot that involved the Illuminati, the Knights Templar, FEMA, the UN, etc.

Some games are far more valuable and engaging than the supposedly more worthwhile pursuits out there. All mediums have their trash. I've read plenty of bad books, or seen bad plays, etc., and the time I spent on those things would have been far better used playing a good game.

And now I'll stop before I make myself sound like an even bigger geek than I already have.

Ann Althouse said...

JB: I think just about everyone needs to back away from an undiluted personal encounter with another human being except on very rare occasions. It's really too much just to look into someone's eyes and talk about true, deep feelings. Terrifyingly difficult and dangerous. We've got to do something else -- shopping, sports, movies -- in order to connect. Some buffer zone is needed if you're to have a relationship at all. If you could really tell what other people think and feel -- how could you stand it? If they could tell what you think and feel -- well, you'd have to get away from them or tone down your thoughts and feelings to avoid awful fights.

amba said...

Here was my defense of reading -- as a highly engaged, anything but passive activity -- compared to TV and videogames.

- amba

Be said...

An ex of mine is a flight instructor and he spent a fair amount of time playing around with flight simulators. I'm sure that it focused his mind on flying when he couldn't - but I don't think that the company he worked for was interested in simulator hours so much as actual, in-flight hours.

Drethelin said...

Having actually read the book, this is my point of view. He doesn't defend video games or things like survivor as pinnacles of intellect. His largest point is that, even though all these things can be totally moronic, they're way better than similar things we would amuse ourselves with 50 years ago. Intellectually speaking, a modern game or reality tv show is way better than tetris or "I love lucy" both in terms of complexity and the amount of thought required( ie to fill in information not given to you obviously).

Playing a game is not going to make you an intellectual genius, but it WILL help exercise mental muscle.

One comparison that he makes that I liked is comparing games to story questions in math books, or logic puzzles. Questions like "If bob and jane and ted share 140 dollars in a 4:5:7 ratio, how much did Jane get?", while in terms of story are stupid, and aren't even very complex, help to train our minds to do more complex things.

CrankitUp said...

I think the puzzle solving aspect of games also comes out in everything we do but in video games and the like it is presented in a likable for, children and young adults playing games that require strategy to solve them in an environment they relate to allows the lessons they learn to stick in the mind more effectively. It is easy to say that this is not good for children or young adults when you have taught children and adults one way and suddenly new ways are presented that threaten the ways you present content. I believe that we must look to new ways to present content to allow them more time tp process large amounts of information.

Kev said...

I'm a performer and instructor of saxophone, and one of my top high-school students from a few years ago was/is a championship-caliber video game player (as in he entered tournaments and won money). He swears to this day that most of his eye-hand coordination on the saxophone came from playing Beatmania.

Ethanbenjamin said...
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